Finding our way to great work: Choosing a major . . . and a vocation

It may be the first time you put your faith in action.

Appears in Winter 2007 Issue: Finding our way to great work
December 1 st 2007

I recently heard a missionary in Africa tell what it was like to buy toothpaste in the United States. He stared at thirty kinds of toothpaste, and he eventually left the store without making a purchase. He was overwhelmed. All he wanted was clean teeth. What he got was an anxiety attack. Many of us feel like that missionary when we begin college, facing the array of academic programs and majors.

There's a small liberal arts college near my house. The college has about 1,800 students and offers fifty-three majors and eighty minors or concentrations. Fifty-three majors? Keep in mind: this is a small school. This could be an anxiety attack waiting to happen! No wonder students are often overwhelmed, and many end up switching majors several times until necessity forces a choice.

That's the point of sociologist Barry Schwartz's insightful book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Schwartz maintains that choice does improve the quality of our lives, without question. The problem is:

as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.

It's a paradox. More choice can sometimes lead to less freedom. The number of choices we have can be paralyzing.

The major problem

There are different kinds of choices. Choosing toothpaste isn't that big a deal. Some grocery stores may even allow you to return it if you are dissatisfied. Schwartz quips, "I think that in modern America, we have far too many options for breakfast cereal and not enough options for president." Clearly, some choices are more important than others—choosing a major, for instance. Having fifty-three majors to choose from sounds good on paper, but then you must choose. You must say "no" to fifty-two options. How will you make that decision? What will you decide to study for the next four to five years? What role will your faith play in this choice? How important is your major compared to the even bigger question of your future career and calling?

Deciding on a major can be difficult. I wish I had a magic formula. But "magic formulas" wasn't one of the majors offered at the university I attended. (That was a joke). This isn't: the first thing you must consider when deciding on a major is why you are going to college in the first place. Most people go to college to get a degree to get a job. For them, deciding on a major is directly related to the kind of job they want to get when they graduate. This loads a lot of pressure on the decision. Let me ease some of that pressure.

First, most graduates are working in career fields not directly related to their programs of study. I have a degree in political science and work for two faith-based, non-profit organizations that have little to do with government. I didn't take a single class directly related to my daily activities, but I think I "use" my major everyday. (More on that, later). Secondly, for Christians, while career preparation is one aspect of college, it isn't the most critical. Attending college is a gift from God, given to some of His children as a means to increase their serviceability for Him and their neighbors. That's a mouthful. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. provides a nice summary in his Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living:

Your college education is meant to prepare you for prime citizenship in the kingdom of God . . . Your calling is to prepare for further calling, and to do so in a Christian community that cares as much about the kind of person you are becoming as what kind of job you will eventually get, and as much about how you will do your job as about which job you do.

"The major landscape"

But you do need to choose. You can't remain "undecided" forever. College is already expensive enough! To make an informed decision, you should know the spectrum of majors offered at most colleges and universities. On one end of the spectrum, there are highly specialized, job-specific majors. Most of what you learn is directly related to the job you will do once you graduate, with very little wiggle room. These majors often come with certifications that need to be completed. Nursing, engineering, accounting, and even teaching fall into this category. On the other end of the spectrum, there are "liberal arts" degrees. History, English, philosophy, and political science are a few examples of the liberal arts. The major consists of a broad-based education, which, at its best, is more concerned with critical thinking skills than job specific skills. I like to call it: "the little bit of everything major." Finally, there are majors that fall somewhere in the middle on the continuum. A business degree is a good example. While there is some job-specific knowledge acquired, there is still some room to take other courses (electives) to broaden your horizons.

This is helpful to know before selecting a major. Here's a simple question: what kind of education do you want to have? If you are pretty sure that you would like to be a nurse, don't expect too many opportunities to study literature or art history. If you enjoy studying philosophy or religion, majoring in accounting may not be a good fit. You only have so many credits (and years!) to work with, and knowing the kinds of classes you can take is an important question to ask your advisor.

"The major decision"

I can't stress this enough: Christians really do need to envision college differently. It's not enough to simply go through the motions, taking tests, getting grades and receiving degrees like everyone else. Through prayer and conversation with people who know you well, you must always remain open to God's call and leading. Picking a major may be one of the first times that you truly put your faith in action.

Here are some questions to ask when deciding on a major:

  1. What interests you? Spiritual growth requires discipline and sacrifice, to be sure (the Bible speaks of denying ourselves), but I don't think we need to give up or distrust our natural interests. Trust that your passions and interests were given to you by God. The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to suggest that there is something good about "following your heart when you are young." This idea is also taught in Psalm 37:4: "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart." Be intentional about nurturing your relationship with God, begin to see the world as He sees it, and be attentive to the Spirit as He directs your interests. Maybe you will discover that you are interested in big ideas and how they shape people and society. Philosophy or sociology would make a good major. We need Christians who are able to discern the times and know what God's people should do (1 Chronicles 12:32). Perhaps you realize that you have the gift of teaching, and nothing excites you more than helping students learn new things and grow as people. We need good teachers. The good news is that the Creator God is interested in all of His creation, including every field of study, and He's invited us to share His interests! Is there a possible major or future career area that God doesn't care about? Math? Geology? Physical therapy? Computer science? Art history? Jesus loves it all, and we may serve happily in any of these arenas.


  2. How will this major increase your serviceability for God and others? This question is much better than the typical response: "What can you do with that major?" Let's face it, we live in a "me-centred" world and college is full of "me-centred" majors. Once again, college should be more about the kind of person you are becoming and less about the kind of skills you are gaining. Be sure to continually ask yourself whether or not this field of study in helping you to grow as a person and serve your neighbors more fully.


  3. Whom have you talked to about choosing a major? You can never have too many conversation partners. Have conversations with people who know you well. Ask them what they think should be your major. Talk to people who have a degree in the major you are most interested in. Ask them good questions: How did you choose that major? What were some of the most important things you learned? If you could do it over again, what would you have done differently? Community is essential to making important decisions. The more important the decision is, the more people you need to be in conversation with.

Earlier I mentioned that I majored in political science but don't currently work in a career directly related to that field. I chose to study political science because I thought I wanted to be a journalist or a lawyer. As a freshman, I never imagined that I would be doing anything like my current vocation. But I've come to really appreciate how my major informs my work today. Critical thinking, a love of reading, and the value of civic engagement were all instilled in me by studying political science. Looking back, political science was a good major for me after all.

Although the college chapter of my life story took many twists and turns, one thing remained constant: God was the Author. Choosing a major is an important, but sometimes stressful, decision. It isn't final. You can change or refine your major along the way. Some things in life—including a proper discernment about our deepest callings and vocations—unfold even as we enter the process of clarifying our call. Through it all, just remember that trusting the Author of your story is more important still.

 

Derek Melleby is the Director of CPYU's College Transition Initiative, through a partnership with the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The Initiative helps college-bound high school juniors and seniors, and their parents, successfully make the transition from high school to college. He is the co-author of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students (Brazos Press) and lives in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi and son Jacob.

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